What the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light is the detrimental effect of medical misinformation. We must remember the “law of rumor” is proportional to the level of ambiguity and the importance of the spreading. When there is an overwhelming feeling of uncertainty, when people feel anxious, when the information is deemed important, and whether they believe the message is accurate or not, people spread rumors. As we continue to encounter new challenges related to this disease, ambiguity and importance continue to increase, leading to an escalation of misinformation.
Furthermore, we are experiencing multiple dimensions of misinformation. There is pseudoscience, which is information that stems from unscientific claims. Frequently, this follows a path of logic that may be incorrect or proposed based on anecdotal events. Then, there is the exposure to junk science that’s designed to take advantage of people. This dynamic of selling “snake oil” feeds both on fear and inflates the strength of a rumor.
There are also dynamics within real science that drive misinformation. Because of the incremental nature of science itself, it has the potential to become obsolete rapidly. With time and additional research, what was once correct, can be proven incorrect, and thus there is a progression in thought and methodology resulting from the new information and findings. Unfortunately, this creates a dynamic where we have clinicians treating in multiple ways, and we have the issue of having to say we were wrong. We also have inappropriately applied science, which leads to misinformation due to clinical heterogeneity that renders science not relevant to a clinical context. And then there is the challenge of a heightening of Health inequities which tends to breed more distrust because of the vulnerabilities of the populations being served.
Lastly, we have conflicting interpretations of science. Various reputable organizations espousing different views and guidelines creates confusion. Thus, when there is an interpretation of the same science from a different angle, mistrust ensues, leading to the question, “How can both be true?”
Unfortunately, all of these are real dynamics that play out every day. As healthcare providers, we must address each one of these dimensions differently. For pseudoscience and junk science, we must raise our voices by tapping into the mediums people utilize as their information source. On those platforms, we must establish ourselves as the trusted voices on the channels accessible to patients and promote clinicians representing the communities we wish to impact. Furthermore, we must use influence as well as facts. Remember, we are dealing with human behaviors.
The three last buckets of information require us to pivot to a different approach. We must be transparent about outdated science and remind ourselves and those we serve that within our industry we are on a never-ending learning journey, one in which there is no finish line. We must improve at interpreting the data we have and acknowledge when we are applying it to unstudied populations. We must affirm that the information might be the best information we currently have.
As professionals, we must solve the dilemma of our competing professional societies. If we are to impact misinformation, we must first come to a consensus ourselves. We all cannot be correct, and by showing our differences, we create distrust and tribalism. We would do better to be less than perfect together than leave it up to the public to figure out which is best.
We must remember that misinformation stems from numerous facets, some congruent to our situation, and some nefarious. Let us continually strive to decrease misinformation and inaccuracy whenever possible and prevent it when and where appropriate.